Pipeline diggers unearth ancient ruin--now to save it

The bulldozers are poised at the edge of irreplaceable archaeological ruins. Time is running out. Will anyone come to the rescue?

The situation at Windy Gap, a site in the Rocky Mountains 60 miles northwest of Denver, has the elements of a modern Hollywood western. Yet, actually, it illustrates how little life in the West today follows movie stereotypes.

First, there is the developer: the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. It is building a pipeline to carry water across the mountains to satisfy the thirst of the rapidly growing Denver-Fort Collins area. According to the standard movie plot, conservancy officials should be insensitive to the value of ancient ruins. They should be interested only in finishing the project.

But the district has spent $320,000 on archaeological studies along the route , including $70,000 at the particular site, which may contain evidence of the oldest permanent structures yet discovered in North America. Although the studies were required by federal law, those familiar with the situation say officials have been extremely cooperative. But water district director Earl Phipps says enough has been done, that it's not fair for its customers to pay for more archaeological work, particularly if it results in costly delays.

Second, there are the federal bureaucrats. Some of these local officials have actually put their jobs on the line in an effort to preserve the site. This is all the more unusual because the finds have been made primarily on private, not public, land.

The US Interior Department is involved because the Windy Gap pipeline will tap into the Bureau of Reclamation's Big Thompson pipeline and because it crosses federal land. As a result, federal law required an archaeological survey of the pipeline's route. But it was not until bulldozers started clearing the area that the most important discoveries were made.

As a result of internal lobbying, Interior Secretary James G. Watt, despite his pro-development image, took up the cause March 29 and sent letters to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation seeking their aid in tapping private funds to excavate the area.

''It will be a critical loss (to North American archaeology) if this site is destroyed,'' says Jeffrey L. Kenyon, a Bureau of Reclamation archaeologist.

These remains at Windy Gap are among outcroppings of jasper, rock that prehistoric people favored for the manufacture of stone implements. Of 16 adobe-like structures ''features'' that have been found, one was excavated during the winter. Samples were taken from the rest. Kenyon argues that it would take $500,000 to properly excavate the remaining areas that lie in the pipeline's path. But it seems unlikely that this will happen.

''The excavation work has been completed. All that remains is analysis,'' Mr. Phipps says. While willing to cooperate with state and local officials, the Water Conservancy's flexibility is limited. The firm preparing the ground for the pipeline has a non-interference clause in its contract. Legally district officials cannot tell it how to do the job. ''Fortunately, the contractor appears to be a pretty good sort,'' says Colorado's historical preservation officer, Arthur Townsend, who has been monitoring the situation.

Last week the contractor volunteered to keep his bulldozers out of the area temporarily. He is meeting with water district officials this week to determine if he can postpone work in the area without adding significantly to the project's cost.

Mr. Townsend says that the most that can be done is to intensively monitor the site as the pipeline work is done. This means that the archaeologists will walk behind the earth-moving equipment. ''I would be much more concerned about this situation if there weren't strong evidence that similar features exist outside the pipeline right of way,'' he says. They have already gained a great deal of information from the one excavation, and he says he believes that careful study of adjacent features will add much more.

The state official and others involved are not quite sure what to make of Mr. Watt's 11th-hour rescue attempt. ''I don't want to disparage his efforts, but the good secretary has known about this situation since December. I applaud his intentions, but question his timing,'' Townsend comments.

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